A Beginner's Guide to Handling a Social Media Crisis

Six things to do. Five things to definitely not do.

I need to be clear about something upfront: I have no official training in crisis communications. I have a B.A. in Biblical Literature and an M.Div. with an emphasis in pastoral ministry. The closest thing I have to communications “training” is about five undergraduate communications classes (from a couple of brilliant teachers, no doubt). In short, I don’t have much training.

But I’ve been working in social media professionally for almost 10 years, and I’ve seen a lot. I study sociological dynamics on social media in my free time—I know... The main reason I even still use social media personally, outside of what I do for work, is because it is fascinating to me to see how people interact and what sociological trends on- and offline are started on the social internet. I’m writing a book on our addiction to the social internet and the many lies we believe when we’re online too much. So, everything you’re about to read comes from a lot of experience, but not a lot of “book study.” Take it as you will.

Also, people have different crisis communication strategies/postures. So, if you are a communications professional and you’re reading this, you may disagree, and that’s OK. Feel free to comment with your different perspectives, and I will try to engage with your thoughts.

Not every social media crisis is created equally. These principles may not work well for a crisis you’ve experienced. Some crises include parties that have been legitimately hurt and offended by your brand. Other crises may include parties that haven’t been legitimately hurt, but are manufacturing a crisis on social media to defame your brand. Discerning the nature of the offended parties’ concern must be done quickly and can dramatically affect how you handle a given situation. Because most social media crises arise because the offended party has actually been hurt in some way, and is not attempting to defame the brand, the following principles are primarily geared toward actual crises and not possible witch hunts.

I think the easiest way to give a brief beginner’s guide to social media crisis communications would be to present it in the form of a question and answer dialogue. So let’s do that. Here we go:

What is a social media crisis?

A social media crisis for your brand, simply speaking, occurs when something bad has happened around your brand, and you are receiving a significant amount of blowback on social media as a result.

How do I know if I am experiencing a social media communications crisis?

Do you feel like the entire world hates you and you want to curl up in a corner and never speak to anyone again? Just kidding. But honestly, you will know if your brand is experiencing a social media crisis. Your engagement will dramatically increase, and most of that engagement will be negative.

What should I do when my brand is experiencing a social media crisis?

Below, I am going to provide a number of principles in bold with an explanation under each:

1) Apologize quickly.

If someone has created a public scene regarding your brand on social media, it is almost certainly because your brand has offended them in some way. Perhaps an order was supposed to arrive weeks ago and still hasn’t arrived. Maybe a store associate made a derogatory remark at the offended party when they were in your store. Maybe an executive leading your brand has been accused of a moral failure.

For the sake of your brand, apologize to the offended party quickly, but do not take ownership. What does this look like? Suppose Sharon is the offended party. She was treated harshly by a store employee last weekend and she is telling everyone about her experience on social media that she was called a derogatory name while she was checking out. Your brand should respond, “Sharon, we are so sorry this happened to you. It shouldn’t have. We will reach out to you to resolve the situation.” Communicating your remorse to Sharon immediately is effectively laying down your sword and saying, “I don’t want to fight, I just want to help.” Even if you eventually find out that the employee did not actually say what Sharon claimed, according to your video recording, Sharon was hurt, and you aligned your brand with her immediately.

2) Take the conversation private or offline as soon as possible.

One of the biggest problems with a social media crisis is that everyone has an incentive to keep the conflict going. Every social media conflict is a performance, even if the actors don’t recognize they’re actors. Each party has their supporters, and the temptation is to be defensive and fight for your side of the conflict, gaining cheers from your supporters. Often, the winner in a social media conflict is decided by whose supporters supported their combatant the loudest.

This doesn’t work for brands.

When a disgruntled customer—or worse, employee—takes their grievance to social media and calls your brand out publicly, your brand doesn’t stand a chance in a traditional social media fight. Your brand will lose. A faceless brand is no match for an offended person in a traditional social media fight. If you fight, you lose. If you don’t fight, you win. When you lay down your sword, apologize, and move the conversation online, you remove yourself as a foil against which the offended party and fight and align yourself on their side, seeking to rectify the situation. This is best done by moving your social media conflict resolution to direct/private messages on a social media platform, or better yet, offline completely.

3) Assume any private message you send from your brand social media account will be made public.

The last thing you need during a social media crisis is for some snarky direct message you send someone from your branded account to be screenshot and made public, adding to the fire you’re already trying to put out. Every single interaction you have with an angry party on social media needs to be handled as thought it is happening in front of thousands of people. Because it either is, if it is a public conversation, or it can be, if the angry party decides to screenshot your conversation and post it publicly.

4) Hide or delete comments that are vulgar in nature.

Vulgar comments have no place on branded social media accounts. It doesn’t matter if the offended party was gravely hurt or otherwise affected by your brand, vulgar comments using profane language have no place in the dialogue and should be deleted immediately, on sight. I deal loosely with trolls compared to most social media managers, but this is where I draw the line.

5) Be patient and kind, even amidst impatience and unkindness.

Remind yourself that anyone commenting angrily is hurting in some way, and they’re expressing it through anger. When you are experiencing a social media crisis for your brand, pause, take a deep breath, and remind yourself that all of the angry parties are angry because they’re hurt—whether for legitimate or illegitimate reasons—and they just want to have their problem resolved (usually, though an exception is explained below.)

6) Respond in a timely manner with relevant helps/information.

This principle is pretty straightforward. When your brand is experiencing a social media crisis of some sort, responding to the offended parties in a timely manner is really important. Whether the offended parties are offended for justifiable reasons or not, they should be served quickly and with any relevant helps or information you can provide that may rectify the situation.

Now, for five basic things NOT to do when your brand is experiencing a social media crisis.

What should I NOT do when my brand is experiencing a social media crisis?

These points are arguably more important than the ones above. Handling a social media crisis is as much, if not more, about what you must not do as it is about what you should do.

Again, everyone has different philosophies when it comes to crisis communications, but in my experience, these are some steps to avoid when handling a crisis on social.

1) Do NOT delete critical comments that appear to be made in good faith.

This is hard for a lot of people because it’s hard to watch people be critical of your brand. I was managing LifeWay’s social media when we made the announcement that we would be closing our 170+ retail stores around the country. As you can imagine, people were not happy. People were mad, sad, and all feeling all kinds of other negative emotions that they expressed toward our LifeWay social media handles, and, by extension, toward me.

It was difficult for me to not delete critical comments. It’s easy to justify it in your head, thinking, “This person is saying mean/bad things about my brand, so they are a troll and they deserve for their comment(s) to be deleted.” This is a wrong line of thinking. Not everyone who makes a critical comment about your brand on social media is a troll, and not everyone who makes a critical comment on social media is just being mean. If it appears their critical comment is genuine, your best option is to leave the comment up. If you delete or even hide the comment, you effectively make a “victim” of the commenter and you could exacerbate the situation. Better to not commit an unforced error here and just let the critical commenter be critical. No one else cares about that comment as much as you do.

2) Do NOT block people who are criticizing your brand unless they have used vulgar language repeatedly.

This, and the next point two points, are sort of extensions of point one. Just as it is unwise to delete critical comments, it is terribly unwise to block critical commenters…unless they are using vulgar language repeatedly. The “block” feature is the highest level of enforcement you have at your disposal as a social media manager. It should be reserved for only the worst social media crimes against your brand. Critical commenters are not committing a social media crime against your brand, as such, they should not be blocked.

But if you have someone dropping “F bombs” or other such language repeatedly on your social media pages, that’s justification to block them from being able to comment any more. You only have so much time in the day, you can’t be playing wack-a-mole with profanity-laced comments.

3) Do NOT turn off comments. 

I feel like this is a no-brainer, but some recent events have made it clear to me that it is not. Don’t do this. It really follows the same principles as point one and two here. When you turn off the ability to comment on a social media platform, you are doing yourself more damage than anyone else. You are communicating to your audience, “You are not valuable to us and we don’t care about your opinions. Leave and go elsewhere.” You may be tempted to do this out of frustration. Don’t. You will just create more of a headache for yourself.

4) Do NOT try to defend yourself, your colleagues, or your brand on social media.

This is very hard for me. This is definitely the hardest point for me to follow in all of this. Back to when we made the announcement about closing all of the LifeWay stores. Over the first couple of days following the announcement, hundreds if not thousands of commenters were berating LifeWay and its leaders for the decision to close the stores. This broke my heart. The people who made the difficult decision to close the stores are personal friends of mine, and I knew how much they agonized and wept over the decision. To see social media commenters virtually scream at them for doing what they thought was best was incredibly difficult for me.

But I didn’t fight back. I didn’t try to defend my friends and colleagues from the LifeWay account or from my personal accounts. I followed step five from the “do” list above and reminded myself that everyone who was angry was simply angry because they were hurt in some way. So I responded with compassion despite my desire to vehemently defend.

If you try to defend your brand amidst a social media crisis, you may feel better, but it will make the situation worse. It is virtually impossible for a brand to win a social media conflict with a person or group of people. This is why it is best to lay down your sword and refuse to fight at all. People watching the social media conflict will always assume the brand is being defensive for nefarious reasons, and give the offended people the benefit of the doubt. Defensiveness never works in social media conflicts between brands and their audiences. Don’t try it.

5) Do NOT attack people who attack you, privately or publicly.

I mean this one is pretty straightforward. Assume every piece of communication in the social media crisis, whether private or public, is being viewed by thousands of people. Attacking the people who are criticizing your brand just doesn’t work. No one has sympathy for brands. This will only make the situation worse.

Final Words

I’ve said a lot here, so I don’t want to say a lot more. But allow me to simply summarize.

When you brand is enduring a social media crisis in some way, remember a few basics:

  • The best way to win a fight is to refuse to fight.

  • Assume no one is sympathetic to your side of things.

  • Treat the offended party with compassion and recognize their hurt.

  • Don’t go on the defensive or offensive for your brand.

If you have not had the privilege of leading a brand through a social media crisis, whether large or small, you certianly will at some point if you are in the line of work for a long enough period of time. I hope this guide can help you through it.